Church at a crossroads: Bishops, priests, and lay Catholics speak out

Irish Examiner [Cork, Ireland]

September 4, 2022

By Conor Capplis

As the Church’s three-year synod approaches its final year, Catholics in Ireland await the outcome with a variety of hopes and aspirations, writes Conor Capplis

The story of Jesus meeting a sceptical Samaritan woman at the well told in the Gospel of John is, for many Christians, a story of encountering Jesus and choosing his well as the source of eternal life. 

As the Irish Church faces a crossroads ahead, with many big decisions to be made, Bishop William Crean of the Catholic Diocese of Cloyne wonders what wells sustain the Irish people today.

The increasingly secularised nation has found new watering holes after decades of Church scandals.

“Where are people finding their sources of, say, imagination, vision, inspiration, motivation, direction, purpose and meaning?” he asks, speaking to the Irish Examiner at his palace in Cobh, Co Cork. 

“I find myself asking: for young people, what’s the source of their spirituality?” 

“Maybe you could compare it to a particular kind of drink. You have some wells that are soft and fizzy, and it’s great to taste in the beginning, but if you want to sustain yourself: Get good clean water.” 

While he’s concerned for the Irish people, Bishop Crean says he respects the choices of those steering clear of the Church and its teachings. A “spiritual drought” he calls it.

“They’re all valid,” he says. “But one would be questioning how enduring and sustaining they are for people’s lives. And there is such a multiplicity of options for people that it’s no wonder that people go in all kinds of directions.” 

The growing reality in Ireland today, is many have left that well far behind or want nothing to do with it or the son of God.

Ireland in 2022 feels in some respects centuries from the Catholic Church that dominated its political and familial life throughout much of the 20th century.

Although the 2016 census figures show that 78.3% identify as Catholic in Ireland, most parishes see just a tiny percentage attend Sunday Mass — and an even smaller number actively involved in Church life.

Archbishop of Tuam Francis Duffy recently said the only certainty for the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland is the “ongoing and sustained decline” of worshippers and priests and said, “all trends [point] dramatically downwards” with “no turning point in sight”.

Census data also shows huge decreases in young people identifying as Catholic — most of whom aren’t practicing anyway — highlighting an ageing demographic. 

So after years of warnings about the death of Catholicism in Ireland, what does the Church look like in 2022? 

And should the institution reinvent itself to survive in secular Ireland and risk wavering from its steadfastness in its teachings, or accept its fate as a smaller community and stay true to its doctrine?

Staffing crisis 

The Catholic Church in Ireland is suffering from a staffing crisis. Dwindling numbers of priests have forced parishes to amalgamate and share clergymen, with some churches holding mass just once a month.

“This process started a long time ago,” says Fr Tony Flannery. 

One hundred seminarians entered training for the priesthood with Fr Flannery in 1964, and about 500 were training in total across Ireland. Just a small fraction of those finished their training.

“By the time I was ordained 10 years later, the number of students had gone down to less than 20,” he says. 

“In [those] 10 years there was a massive exodus of students and the numbers coming in were declining year by year.” 

Not long ago there were seminaries across the country, but with a “dramatic decline” since the early 2000s, most have shut down. St Patrick’s Seminary in Maynooth remains the sole training facility for priests in the country, with fewer than 40 priests in training.

“If you go back to 1979 when St John Paul II came [to Ireland], it seemed that things were really healthy and vibrant at that point,” says Bishop of Killaloe Fintan Monahan, who at 55 is one of Ireland’s youngest bishops.

 “And then from the 1980s things began to decline in terms of mass attendance and all of that, after the euphoria that was there with St John Paul II and 1m turning up to Phoenix Park.” 

“The average age of priests in Ireland is somewhere around 73 or 74,” says Fr Flannery, which is just shy of the expected age of retirement at 75. “There are only a handful of priests under the age of 50”.

He believes there are hundreds of priests who are still practicing above 75, the usual age of retirement, and some are in their 80s. 

This is “out of necessity because there is nobody to take their place… The inclination for a lot of them is to hang on for as long as they possibly can… That’s the reality of priesthood in Ireland. Clearly, priesthood as we have known it in Ireland is dying out and another 10 years will see most of the priests gone,” he says.

Bishop Monaghan’s diocese is at a “much advanced stage” of this decline in priests. Twenty years ago, the Church began spreading out numbers and several parishes have shared priests. 40% of the parishes in Killaloe are now without a resident priest.

“The next phase of that would be probably closure of the smaller churches, but that’s way down the line,” he says. 

“That would be no more than tampering with the parish structure. Some people have such an attachment to their church. But I suppose if it does become financially unviable, what can you do?” 

He says there is “no systematic plan” for repurposing Church property in the coming years but suggests they could be used by the community in new ways or sold to councils.

So how did Ireland move from a country so interlinked with the Catholic Church, to the institution we find hanging by a thread today?

“Since the 1960s there was a whole bunch of cultural shifts that were beginning then and have rolled themselves out over the decades,” says Bishop Crean. 

A “cultural migration” has taken place in Ireland, he says, and many have ambitions that don’t align with the priesthood anymore.

“[For] a young person coming through, the possibility of the priesthood being a positive choice is probably diminished somewhat for all kids of reasons. You’re not going to get rich” — looking around at the grand library room we’re sitting in, I suggest that one might get a nice house, but the Bishop is quick to respond. 

“It’s a house on your own,” he points out, adding that celibacy is a huge barrier for those considering this path.

For Bishop Monaghan, clerical abuse scandals have contributed to this decline, alongside general “secularisation” and the “growth of materialism”.

“Even more important than secularisation and the abuse scandals is the lessening or the weakening of a sense of faith,” he adds. When a sense of faith is high in the community, people come forward for pastoral involvement, but this has shrunk, he says.

Fr Flannery says more than 90% of Catholics attended mass weekly in the 1950s, and pre-pandemic it was closer to 30% but it “varied widely from place to place”.

“But that was pre-pandemic,” he said. 

Everything we’re hearing now is that the pandemic has had a dramatic effect in reducing further church attendance.” 

None of this is new, however, you’d have to be hiding under a rock to miss the cultural sidelining of the Catholic Church in recent decades. What is new, however, is an effort from within Church hierarchy to respond to such widespread decline with an invitation to change.

The Church is at a crossroads, and its foot soldiers are well aware of it.

Role of lay people

Fr Patsy Lynch will be the last resident priest in his parish of Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry. Part of the Church’s plan to fill the gaps left by retiring priests, is encouraging greater involvement among lay people.

He believes it may dawn on parishioners when he retires that the Church will need them in order to survive. 

“They have gotten used to it. For years and years, the priest did everything. 

“We have to change, there’s no doubt about that… It is about empowering people more and more. As priests, our role is not to control. Our role is to lead.

“Unfortunately, I don’t see that leadership from priests that I would like to see. We have to be instruments of change ourselves. That’s where it begins: Empowering the people.” 

“I spent over 30 years in Ghana as a missionary priest and there, the Church was alive! People were involved. Here, everything is left to the priests. And a lot of priests unfortunately just want to be in control.” 

He is disappointed to see the Church “slipping back into its old ways” after the pandemic.

“I would love to hear people have new ideas… experimenting and inventing new ways of reaching out [to people] and share how they are using technology,” he said. 

“I feel with the post-Covid era we’re just slipping back into the same old thing, just going through the motions, ticking the box. Livestreaming is a gift from God and it is here to stay [and] I am very disappointed we are not embracing this way forward”.

“We have to be relevant, embracing technology and communications,” he added. “I’m very, very disappointed that Church isn’t doing more.”

Opportunity for change 

Last year Pope Francis called a universal synod — basically one big group listening session in every parish in the world — to give voice to people at all levels of the institution on its future. 

Some are hoping for progressive voices to be heard in Rome next year at the close of the three-year synod, and others looking to maintain the authority of the Church hierarchy and its historical teachings.

A summary of Ireland’s synodal discussions at parishes and at a conference in Athlone in June was sent to the Vatican last month and marked what looked like a turning point in its history.

It revealed that many want female priests, optional celibacy, and the full inclusion of the LGBTQI+ community. 

Suppressing fears that some of the more “radical” elements would be omitted from the final report for Rome, the Church sent the national synthesis document that laid bare the task ahead of the institution if it wants to retain widespread appeal in Ireland.

Church reform campaigner Ursula Halligan says she feared “that the bishops might try to censor or dilute the view of Irish Catholics. The Catholic Church has been an authoritarian and secretive organisation for centuries, so our fears were understandable”.

“The marvellous thing is that it didn’t,” the former broadcaster and journalist says.

The synodal process is part of Pope Francis’s efforts to move the Church “away from a hierarchal model of church towards a people of God model”, she believes.

The Pope has “lit the fuse” with the synod. “I predict it will be explosive.”

“The vast majority of Irish people have just walked away, especially women. But they haven’t walked away from their faith, just the institutions.” 

But the Church must “rebuild and regroup” from within and not “demonise the institutional Church… otherwise Christianity means absolutely nothing”.

“We know that there will be forces at work within the Church resisting any change, because a lot of people in the institutional Church are comfortable with the status quo.

“And a lot of them have bought into a patriarchal mindset. I do have hope, but I am under no illusions that it will be tough.

“This is only the beginning,” she says, “it’s going to take time, but we’re ready for the long haul.” 

The report found an absence of young people in Church life. Most parishes struggled to find young people to engage with the process at all. 

During listening sessions, the report said many young people were critical of the Church regarding the role of women, clerical celibacy and its handling of the abuse crisis, and disagreed with the Church’s teaching on sexuality. It said the absence of young people in Church life and how to increase engagement is “urgent”.

But not all conform to this narrative, and some are critical of the synodal process.

Conservative Catholics 

Following the pre-synodal conference at Athlone, a petition reportedly signed by more than 500 young people in Ireland said the “current synthesis of the synod of Ireland is at risk of concluding that the sense of the faithful (Sensus Fidei) is in conflict with the teaching of the Catholic Church”.

“It suggests that the faithful in Ireland wish to change Church teaching on sexuality, marriage and the ordination of women”, the petition said. 

“We as faithful young Catholics fully accept Church teaching and have no desire to have it changed.” 

The letter, which was sent to the Church’s Synodal Pathway steering committee said, “false conclusions” were being presented in Athlone, and that “emerging concerns” in parishes should not prompt change but “instead a call to communicate Church teachings better”.

One signatory was 21-year-old Matthias Conroy who was auditor of University College Dublin’s Newman Catholic Society last year.

“Being a Catholic is the best thing about my life,” he says.

He believes many older people in the Church feel some changes are needed to include more young people, but “this inevitably involves changing something that makes the Church, the Church” and changing fundamental teachings passed down by Jesus.

“I don’t think that’s the answer. The answer to include more young people is being authentic and true in saying, ‘This is what we believe, here is the good news’.” 

“I think a lot of churches in the [US] have gone down the route of — for lack of a better term — ‘watering down’ their teachings on questions of morality for instance and acquiescing to the will of whatever the particular cultural movement is at the time.

“I think that those churches have had successes in the general public sphere, but their actual numbers of attendants and committed believers have actually gone down.”

“I think that perhaps some movements for change within the Church to the tune of the world will probably fade out,” he says.

Another signatory, 24-year-old Helen Vysotska, says the synod is a “great gift of the Church” but the synod in Ireland “veered away from the experience of the Church and instead focused on reforming the Church’s teachings based on public opinion”.

“The Church has always been evolving to become more perfect within the doctrine and synods help to make this happen,” she says. 

“That’s different to changing the doctrine as that has never been changed because that cannot be changed. Christ has already spoken.” 

While many have rejoiced at the synod’s finding so far, Conroy and Vysotska aren’t alone in their criticism of the synodal process and the legitimacy of its findings.

Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan, who is a member of conservative Catholic organisation Opus Dei, believes the report reveals an attitude towards “traditional faith which is mildly dismissive”.

“From my own interaction with some ‘conservative’ or ‘traditional’ believers it was clear that many did not engage with the synodal process at a parish level,” he said in a statement on his website for the Diocese of Waterford and Lismore.

“If the Church in Ireland is worried about groups on the margins of Irish society, then we will have to dialogue in a more serious way with what might be termed ‘traditional Catholics’,” he wrote. 

“In no way do I wish to criticise the writers of the synthesis or all those who worked long hours in the preparation of the synthesis.” “Like many others I felt that the synod process itself was somewhat rushed” and time limits handed down by the Vatican were “insufficient”.

Bishop Cullinan said there was “far too much introspection” at the pre-synodal gathering in Athlone.

“Where was the prophetic voice of the Church calling society to take a serious look at itself? Where was the challenge to the prevailing culture of individualism and secularism? Are we just giving in to current trends and forgetting about the wisdom of past generations and the long tradition of the Church?” 

Not all within the Church are keen to embrace a change in structure and teachings, but many Church leaders in Ireland are hopeful this synod will usher in a new era . But many believe this cannot happen without confronting the barriers to Church involvement for many.

Shadow of clerical abuse 

Clerical abuse is “alive for as long as there are victims”, says Bishop Crean. “Society will remember it as a particularly black period.” For Bishop Monaghan, the spectre of clerical abuse will “always be with our generation, perhaps forever”.

Dr Nicola Brady, chair of the steering committee of the synodal pathway, believes the synod is “an opportunity to address the history of abuse within the Church “with its focus on healing relationships, on better, more inclusive, more respectful dialogue”.

She says the test for the Church in dealing with its history of abuse will be “how courageous, how open, we will be in listening to the victims and survivors because they have done so much for the transformation of the Church.” 

In the synodal process in Ireland, “some of the really prophetic voices have been the victims and survivors who have called us to healing, to justice, to reconciliation. So if we’re willing to really listen to what they have to say, I think they can really help the process of renewal in the Church.” 

“A huge amount has been done to address it with safeguarding procedures,” Bishop Monaghan says. “But it is something that has done untold damage to the Church and the credibility of the Church. There’s no doubt about that. And it’s something that will remain with us for the lifetime of our generation.” 

“I would say that the Church has learned,” Bishop Crean says.

We have learned because we were confronted with it so vigorously.”

The Diocese of Cloyne recently completed its second audit that “affirmed the safeguarding structures in place”.

“I think we are much more vigilant now than we were — but we never rule out the possibility [of it happening again],” he says. “Paedophilia is a reality.” 

Women and celibacy 

Another barrier holding back many from involvement in the Church is its attitude towards women. In 1976 the Church deemed itself unauthorised to admit women into priestly ordination.

One prominent voice for change within the Church is that of former President Mary McAleese. 

Speaking in Rome on International Women’s Day in 2018, she said while the Vatican Council has created more roles for lay women in recent years, “these have simply marginally increased the visibility of women in subordinate roles… but they have added nothing to their decision-making power or their voice”.

She said “the Catholic Church has long since been a primary global carrier of the virus of misogyny. It has never sought a cure though a cure is freely available. Its name is ‘equality’… the Catholic Church lags noticeably behind the world’s advanced nations in the elimination of discrimination against women”.

The Church’s “overt patriarchalism acts as a powerful brake on dismantling the architecture of misogyny wherever it is found”. A Catholic Church where women are “equals” and “truly matter” is the only church “worthy of Christ”, she said. 

Meanwhile, many clergymen interviewed for this article felt that priests should be allowed to marry and rules on this may change in the future.

Close to this matter is celibacy, and there are equally growing sentiments that these rules should change.

“I certainly see it as a possibility happening in the future,” says Bishop Crean. But he doesn’t believe the issues of celibacy and marriage for priests can be addressed “without addressing the question of women’s leadership in the Church.” 

“You can’t say that women aren’t capable of as powerful spiritual leadership as men. They have shown it across the centuries,” he says. “It would be a different style of leadership, I mean, look at all the extraordinary women that lead religious communities.” 

In contrast, Helen Vysotska believes “women cannot be priests because a priest is ‘in persona Christi’ which means that the person is the person of Christ when they consecrate the gifts of wine and bread and turn them as Christ did at the Last Supper into His Body and His Blood.

“There is no dispute in that Jesus was a man and even a census will tell you that. Women in leadership does not equate women in priesthood. Women over the years in the Catholic Church have been allowed more and more to participate, be leaders and ambassadors of parish, Church groups and committees and organisations that the Church in Rome fully supports”.

Queer and Catholic 

If the Church seeks to find relevance with a new generation that remains vastly underrepresented among its ranks, should it address its attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community?

Describing acts of homosexuality as “intrinsically evil” doesn’t exactly get the gays on board, and an increasing number of Catholics feel the same — particularly young people, as the synod report has shown.

“The Catholic teaching as it currently is the catechism and in the code of canon law is very problematic,” says Fr Flannery. 

“It uses some appalling language. It describes people of a homosexual orientation as ‘disordered’. That’s absolutely out of order.” 

He says the Church’s treatment of the LGBTQ+ community “tends to turn young people off big time… There doesn’t seem to be any sign of a reversal in that trend and if we judge by what has happened by countries around Europe, the reality probably is that this decline will continue in the foreseeable future”.

He says this view of gay people as “disordered” comes from a “very traditional thinking” that people choose to be gay, whereas now it is accepted as an “innate part of you”.

“For the Church to say that something that is innate in a person — that is part of them as they were created — that that is disordered. It’s so totally wrong because actually they’re saying that the creator created this person in a disordered state. So it’s actually a major insult to God.” 

Should the Church, then, reverse its statements on sexuality, combatting its decline in relevancy within an increasingly liberal society?

Bishop Crean, while he doesn’t condemn people engaging in homosexual acts, says the term marriage is a “covenant between God and these people” and should be reserved for a man and a woman. However, he suggests “another word be used” for same-sex commitments.

Fr Flannery says that if the Catholic Church changed its teachings on the ordination of women and homosexuality, “it would mean changing Church doctrine, and that’s the big stumbling block. 

“The Vatican as it is presently constituted [has] absolutely set their face against changing Church doctrine — and that incidentally is why I’ve been suspended from priesthood for the last 10 years.” 

Fr Flannery, who co-founded the Association of Catholic Priests in 2010, which has been a voice for reform within the Church, has not been allowed to minister publicly as a priest since 2012. The decision came after the Church took issue with views he aired publicly around women in the Church and its teachings on sexuality.

The future

Many Catholics were active campaigners in the 2018 referendum on the right to termination of pregnancies. And although not all hold pro-life views, many remain strong proponents of protecting the unborn. 

So will the Church’s relevance decline further as a majority in Ireland are in favour of abortion?

“I think it will to a degree, but it will also find support from others,” says Bishop Crean. “I have a very strong sense it’s non-negotiable within the Catholic framework, it certainly is currently.” 

Bishop Monaghan agrees. 

“One of the areas that the Church is absolutely unwavering on is the pro-life stance, and I would have got proactively involved in that referendum and would have been more passionate about it than any of the previous ones. And certainly, it is associated, for good or for bad, with the religious cause.” 

It’s a turbulent time to be a Catholic in Ireland, and in many ways the institution is increasingly at odds with the public opinion. So what will the future look like?

Bishop Monaghan says the Church is going to be a “much leaner, watered down Church in terms of numbers”. 

He surmises it may head towards the “St Benedict model of small base Christian communities… and very much back to basic gospel values. Historically in Ireland the Church and state worked ‘hand and glove’ and maybe that wasn’t a healthy thing for either institution”.

“I think we will see a smaller but dedicated church,” says Matthias Conroy.

“Unfortunately, we’re going to have to convert a lot of churches, we just won’t have anybody to fill them which is a tragedy.” 

“I believe that the smaller the Church does not mean the worse it is,” says Helen Vysotska. 

“In fact, I think the opposite. The more truthful and faithful it is to its core foundations, beliefs and teachings that have been instituted and demonstrated by Christ himself. There are a lot more young, practising Catholics than people think.” 

“Things have to change,” says Fr Lynch. 

“Do I see something happening in the ground right now? I don’t, which is a pity. There should be some signs [of change].

“It’s not going to suddenly become apparent maybe next year when the three years [of the synod] are completed. 

We have to see seeds of change now.

Bishop Crean, however, is more hopeful; he believes the Church eventually will “blossom” again, and “probably blossom a little differently in different countries depending on the cultural scene”.

The path ahead remains rocky for the Church. From Church leaders right down to parishioners and young activists, there is no firm consensus on many pressure points highlighted in the synod report. The crossroads at which the Church finds itself will ultimately decide the future of its place in society.

Undoubtedly the numerical high point of Catholicism in Ireland has passed, but something different is on the horizon.

“The natural diminishment of clerical leadership will enable a new kind of leadership to emerge,” Bishop Crean says. “There must be a shedding of stuff that has served its time, and some of it wasn’t great, but there were some very good things”.

“A death is necessary for a new seed to take root.” 

What is the synod?

In October last year, Pope Francis called a universal synod, catapulting Catholics into a three-year listening process aiming to foster collaboration at all levels of the Church in deciding its future.

Speaking at Knock shrine last month, Dr Nicola Brady, chair of the synodal pathway steering committee, said synodality comes from the Greek for “together on the way”.

“Synodality is about how we journey together as a Christian community — listening to and supporting one another and discerning together how we are called to live as followers of Christ in the circumstances of today.” What’s particularly unique about this synod, is its inclusion not just of bishops in discerning what God wants of the Church, but for the first time since the early Church parishioners have a say on the themes of communion, participation and mission.

The first phase of the process Ireland was an all-island invitation to hold listening sessions at a parish level. 42,000 Catholics, or 0.93% of those who identify as such, participated last Spring in what ultimately became much more than a reflection on the themes handed down from the Vatican.

As summary reports were published by each diocese revealed emerging themes around topics such as abuse, sexuality, the role of women in the Church and young people.

A pre-synodal conference was held in Athlone in June where bishops, Catholic interest groups and members of the synod steering committee gathered to reflect on the themes and concerns. Feedback in Athlone was compiled with a summery of Ireland’s synod and sent to Rome on August 15th.

The next phase will see further conversation at a continental level before the process comes to a close late next year at the Vatican, where the Pope will be faced with some difficult conversations around calls to change Church doctrine.

Dr Brady said there exists a “significant challenge” in “building and re-building trust in the Church”, and “synodality offers the tools to connect and re-connect with people”. However, she added that the Church is “very conscious” its work has its limitations as the synod “did not reach as many people as we would have wanted”, particularly young people.

Separate to the global synod called by Pope Francis, Irish bishops of the Catholic Church in Ireland have committed to a national synod to continue beyond October next year when the global synod concludes.

Synod highlights desire for female priests, optional celibacy, and inclusion for all

A national synthesis of the synod in Ireland was published in August, highlighting clear calls for change within the Church.

During consultations, there were calls for women to be given equal treatment within Church structures in terms of leadership and decision making.

“Many women remarked that they are not prepared to be considered second class citizens anymore, and many are leaving the Church,” it said.

There were calls from both young and old participants for optional celibacy, married priests, female priests, and the return of those who had left the priesthood to marry.

There was a clear, overwhelming call for the full inclusion of LGBTQI+ people in the Church, including calls from an LGBTQI+ focus group for an apology from the Church, saying it “indirectly creates an atmosphere where physical, psychological, and emotional abuse of gay people is tolerated, and even encouraged”.

“The physical, sexual an emotional abuse and its concealment by the Church in Ireland was described as an ‘open wound’”, the report said, and added there is a “palpable sense that despite many efforts by the Church, a ‘reckoning’ had not yet taken place”.

Dr Nicola Brady said the findings of the synod in Ireland are “stark” and “many of the experiences shared are painful”.

“Some of these painful issues around identity and belonging have the potential to be divisive,” she said. “But our experience to date demonstrates that they need not necessarily be so. It is possible to hold on to our convictions and at the same time to choose relationship over rupture, taking the time to ask questions, to deepen our understanding, to seek points of connection even in the midst of disagreement.

“As we reflect on the history of this island, we can see the devastating and often deadly consequences of polarising tendencies that turn every disagreement into a power struggle. Through the synodal process the Church has a God-given opportunity to model a better way, contributing not only to the healing of relationships within the Church, but to the work of building a more just and compassionate society for all.”